In Brief

Psychologist John Lynch, PhD, says that he has one "fatal flaw": He says "yes."

When he's asked to do a time-consuming task that's far enough in the future--be it chairing a committee or reviewing a journal article--he, like many people, thinks, "Sure I'm busy today, but by next month I'll have plenty of time."

Now Lynch, a professor at Duke University, and his colleague Gal Zauberman, PhD, of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, find evidence that most people fall victim to such thoughts. This makes them prone to "delay discounting"--preferring to incur a large cost later, rather than a small cost now. The researchers also found that this is truer for time than for money.

In the first of several experiments published in this month's Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (Vol. 134, No. 1), Zauberman and Lynch asked 95 North Carolina undergraduates to think about their activities and available spare time that day and a month from that day, and then decide on which day they'd have more time. The students' average response was 8.2 on a scale from one (much more time today) to 10 (much more time next month).

Then, they asked the students to think about their expenses and amount of spare cash on that day and one month from that day. People were less likely to believe that money would be more abundant in one month than they had been to believe that time would be more abundant. The researchers hypothesize that they got these results because money is more fungible than time: People can use a credit card or save money for an uncertain future.

In another experiment, the researchers asked people to help two children's charities, one asking for help tomorrow and one in two weeks. The charities asked for either money ($15 or $20) or time (one or two hours). Zauberman and Lynch found that in general people were more likely to help the charity that needed help later, and that this was particularly true when they were asked for time rather than money. However, the small minority of people who believed that they would have more money in the future, but not more time, showed the opposite pattern.

For their next study, Lynch and Zauberman are designing an experiment in which they will make money and time equally fungible to see if that makes participants less likely to "delay discount" time relative to money.